Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Gay Rights and Black Civil Rights Analogy

Generally, civil rights are the protections and privileges that a nation bestows upon all of its citizens. The concept of civil rights often comes up during debates about gay rights in the context of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal rights. The purpose of this post is not to rehash constitutional arguments for or against the application of the 14th amendment to gay people. To me, the equal rights issue is clear and simple. Gay people deserve equal rights as guaranteed under the US Constitution. But, other people- laymen, lawyers, judges- argue that gay people do not deserve equal protection based on their gay identity.

Instead of arguing the constitutional issues, I want to talk today about how some compare the gay rights movement to the black civil rights movement. The comparison angers some on the anti-equality side as well as some black civil rights activists.

While I'm not the spokesperson for all gay people, this post is a reminder as to what exactly an analogy is and how I think the gay rights movement is similar to and different than the black civil rights movement. In addition, I should note that there are many people who are both black and gay. My article is not meant to ignore people at the intersections of race and sexuality, but this article considers race and sexual orientation separately in order to analyze how the two specific traits are alike and different.

In addition, I am using gay to refer to the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, blah blah blah elephant turtle unicorn movement. As my profile states, hyper-political correctness, while sometimes necessary, annoys me and I'm not going to write out LGBTQQI everytime I want to just say "gay."

Some people claim that the gay rights/black civil rights analogy doesn't work. Well, as an analogy, it is necessarily imperfect. For, if two things are exactly alike, there is no need for analogy, you just speak of the two things interchangeably.

I don't think the gay rights movement is exactly the same as the black civil rights movement. I doubt many gay rights activists would make that claim. Because it is an analogy, there are differences and similarities between the two movements.

First, for some differences:

1) Sexual orientation is different than race. Obviously. Race is something that one is born with; sexual orientation is probably some nature/nurture mix. We don't really know. Some argue that while race is innate and non-mutable, sexual orientation is a mere behavior or "proclivity" (and therefore, unlike race, it is something that one can change).

This argument is problematic. Just as many heterosexuals do not define their romantic relationships solely by the act of sex, many gay people do not define their romatic relationships solely in terms of the act of sex. Yes, sex is a behavior. But one has no control over one's race, one has no control over the type of behavior or, more importantly, with whom one finds a relationship to be most fulfilling and satisfying.

2) One can often tell a person's race by looking at him or her. Gaydar aside, one can not tell a person's sexual orientation by looking at him or her. The implications for discrimination based on physical appearance v. internal chracteristic differ. Do we need to re-hash these implications and weight them as which ones are more invidious? Which ones are harder to deal with? Who has it worse? I don't think so.

3) Obviously, gay people as a group were never enslaved in the US. The effects of slavery and the government-sanctioned racism continue to linger today. No one should deny that, although people try. Gay people, as a group, have historically also faced government-sanctioned discrimination. And, they still do.

Now, some similarities:

1) The government and groups of people seek or have sought to deny us rights, privileges, and protections available to other citizens.

2) The hate that some people show for us based on our inclusion in a particular group of people is the same. It is a hatred, a bias, a prejudice that is based on a single trait.


Note the hate in the eyes of the white woman in the background.

Note the hate in the eyes of the God Bigots Hate Fags crew.

The hatred in both of these pictures stems from the same source. It is irrational and it is predicated on the hatred of person based on a single characteristic that that person has, without regard to the content of that person's personality.

3) The black civil rights movement and the gay rights movement both seek to eradicate discrimination that is based on hate, bias, and intolerance. And, just as fewer people now than at the beginning of the civil rights movement are overtly racist, fewer people now are overtly homophobic than at the beginning of the gay rights movement. This doesn't mean that people don't still throw around the n-word or that people don't still call gay people fags and dykes, but I have to think it happens less frequently. And, when people use these words in public in a pejorative manner, others are often quick to condemn the perpetrators.

At the same time, less overt forms of individual racism and homophobia still exist- It has been my experience in arguments with anti-equality advocates that their arguments often, perhaps unknowingly to them, reveal bigotry, hatred, and/or disgust of gay people. As being called a "bigot" has turned into an embarassing characteristic for one to be labeled as, people will claim with all their might that no they aren't bigots, they just don't want gay people to have the same rights that other citizens have.

Hmmm....with friends like that, as they say, who needs enemies?

This comparison/contrast session is meant to acknowledge some similarities and differences between race and sexual orientation.

I don't see gay activists as attempting to "co-opt" or "hijack" the black civil rights movement. I think such language is used by some anti-equality advocates to further demonize gay people- and, especially, to try to demonize gay people in the eyes of black people. As in, look at all these gay people trying to "steal" your movement. (Nevermind, I guess, that there are many gay people of color).

I know that some black people are against marriage equality and are, perhaps, angered by comparisons to the civil rights movement. But, just as I do not speak for all gay people, I do not believe that they speak for all black people. I can respect and acknowledge the differences between race and sexual orientation, between the LGBT rights movement and the black civil rights movement while simultaneously acknowledging the similarities. As a white lesbian, I don't know what it is like to live in the US as a black person, and just because I feel the effects of homophobia I won't claim to understand what it's like to feel racism.

And we can sit here and argue about who has it worse: black people or gay people [or insert group].... But again, when did this become a Who's The Most Oppressed contest?

Wouldn't it be more helpful to acknowledge our common bond of oppression- oppression that has intolerance of difference at its root?

I have faith that if we joined together, if we acknowledged our similarities while respecting our differences, we could accomplish more than we could by ourselves.

Unfortunately.... there's still work to be done to clean our own houses of racism (in the gay community) and homophobia (in the black community).

But frankly, I am more interested in hearing what black people, gay people, and gay black people think about the comparison and less interested in what straight white anti-equality activists think about it. Because straight white anti-equality activists are using the age-old method of pitting the minorities against each other to prevent them from joining forces. I don't believe for one second that white homobigots have any particular strong concern about the equality of racial minorities.

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